While Ron Rivera’s transformation into Riverboat Ron last year helped him keep his job and saved the Carolina Panthers’ season from sinking, Rivera’s boss showed he isn’t afraid to gamble, either.
Coming off the Panthers’ first playoff berth since 2008, general manager Dave Gettleman took some chances during the offseason when he overhauled the receiving corps and secondary, and put the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy.
Of course, Gettleman doesn’t view the moves as gambles, but steps he took to improve the roster while working within the confines of a tight salary-cap situation.
The Panthers lost five starters in free agency, and replaced them with mostly older, lower-priced players.
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“We were cap-strapped,” Gettleman said recently. “Couldn’t afford to keep Captain (Munnerlyn). Couldn’t afford to keep Mike Mitchell. We were in a bad spot. We signed (kicker) Graham (Gano). We franchised Greg. And from there we did the best we could. It was the position we were in.”
Cutting Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader, was the boldest and most controversial of Gettleman’s moves. The release of Smith, who had been the face of the franchise until Cam Newton’s arrival in 2011, had as much to do with clearing the locker room of a headstrong personality as it did about money.
A look at each of the Panthers’ three offseason gambles:
Defensive backs: No-name no more
The Carolina Panthers’ defensive backs last year – a collection of castoffs, lowly regarded draft picks and an undrafted rookie – played with an us-against-the-world mentality that suited the group well.
Other than losing their heads in the playoff loss to San Francisco – when Captain Munnerlyn, Mike Mitchell and Josh Thomas all picked up personal-foul penalties – the secondary played at a high level while aided by a strong pass rush.
Munnerlyn and Mitchell played well enough to land free-agent deals with Minnesota and Pittsburgh, respectively, that the Panthers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, match. When Gettleman opted against bringing back aging veterans Quintin Mikell and Drayton Florence, it meant four of the top five defensive backs had to be replaced.
Gettleman stayed within the NFC South to sign safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper, each of whom played in at least one Pro Bowl while with Atlanta and New Orleans, respectively.
The Panthers added ex-San Diego cornerback Antoine Cason in the hopes he could rebound after a disappointing season in Arizona by reuniting with former Chargers coaches Ron Rivera and Steve Wilks.
This year’s starting secondary is, on average, more than a year older than last year’s group, which could make it susceptible to injuries. Harper sat out most of training camp with a toe injury after missing seven games with the Saints last year because of knee issues.
Harper, 31, who won a Super Bowl in New Orleans, brings an aggressive edge to the secondary that Mitchell supplied last year. While the Panthers have a utility player in Charles Godfrey in the event of injury, keeping Harper healthy is key.
“Roman does have a veteran (presence). He’s also a high-impact guy,” Rivera said. “Guys that bring high impact tend to be infectious with the way they play. So we’re excited about having him around.”
Greg Hardy: A $13.1 million bet
Dave Gettleman had three options after Greg Hardy had a monster, 15-sack season during his contract year. The Carolina Panthers could sign Hardy to a long-term deal, let him walk in free agency or put the franchise tag on him.
They chose to tag him, at a cost of $13.1 million this season.
The Panthers knew better than anyone about Hardy’s history of maturity issues. But other than three speeding tickets and several other traffic violations, Hardy had no criminal record before his May arrest on domestic violence charges.
Hardy, 26, was found guilty by a district judge in July, and has a jury trial in appeals court scheduled for November. The NFL apparently will wait for the case to be resolved before deciding whether to punish Hardy.
Hardy’s attorney believes the case will be pushed back to 2015. In that scenario, the Panthers could get a full season with Hardy before he becomes a free agent again.
The team had given no indication they planned to sign Hardy to an extension, even prior to his arrest and conviction. So Hardy figures to be a rental player, one who has made no secret of being motivated by a big contract.
“I want to get the money, man,” Hardy told the Observer last week. “I’m chasing everything I was always chasing before.”
Hardy’s teammates have brushed off questions about Hardy being a distraction. They’ve seen no change in the way he prepares.
“The guy goes hard, and you always appreciate that when you know what you’re going to get out of somebody consistently,” Harper said.
Gettleman sees no reason why Hardy won’t be as productive as he was last season.
“Why not? He’s a year older, a year smarter,” Gettleman said. “He’s entering his prime right now. There’s no reason why he can’t be.”
Wide receivers: New kids in town
The departure of Steve Smith would have been tough enough for the fan base to digest. But when the three other top receivers from last season were lost in free agency, the Carolina Panthers were left without a wideout who caught a pass in 2013 – and general manager Dave Gettleman in the crosshairs of critics.
Gettleman said his plan at receiver was shaped in part by one of the deepest receiving draft classes in years.
“Obviously, we lost the top four depth-chart guys wide receiver-wise. And there was that week or two-week period where there was nobody coming in,” Gettleman said. “But I felt very strongly that the depth in both free agency and in this draft was wide receiver. So if you’re going to make a move, when you can double-dip, make it now. And that’s what we did.”
The Panthers signed Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood in free agency, and drafted Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round.
Before playing in his first regular-season game, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin already is the Panthers’ clear No. 1 receiver. He’s big, runs and jumps well, and snatches the ball with his enormous hands.
“It’s important to him. He comes to work,” Gettleman said. “If you miss on your 1’s in this league, it really hurts you. We really vetted this thing out, and we felt very good about Kelvin.”
The free-agent acquisitions have had inauspicious starts. Underwood was released in the first round of cuts, and Avant and Cotchery were scarcely heard from in the first three exhibitions.
Meanwhile, Smith caught six passes for 80 yards and a touchdown for Baltimore in the Ravens’ exhibition win against Washington on Aug. 23.
“They’ll be just fine,” Panthers safety Roman Harper said of the new receivers. “Nobody thought they were going to be great last year, either. Let’s be honest here, (Brandon) LaFell probably had his best year as a pro.”